Back to school

As Indiana slowly cools down from a hot summer and students adjust to their schedules, it finally begins to feel like “back to school.”

While most of us don’t dress up for the beginning of the semester, I steadfastly heed the first-day-of-school traditions of my past.

Last week I forced my housemates to pose for pictures outside our row house in Washington, D.C. before allowing them to head off to the first day of their internships.

I think there is a point to the pageantry beyond embarrassing pictures.

While I never wore a school uniform, the emphasis my parents put on education led me to a lifelong belief that the classroom demands a high level of respect. To this day, I do not wear sweatpants to class.

Attire is literally only skimming the surface, but is also one indicator of student commitment and motivation.

Robert Samuelson wrote a recent column for the Washington Post that addressed the issue.

He cites test score data from the 1970s and from this decade: it has barely increased, while teacher-student ratios, early childhood education and other changing variables should have led to much larger improvements.

Samuelson’s process-of-elimination analysis yields a troubling conclusion: education reform does not just mean fixing broken bureaucracies, training better teachers or continuing to throw money at the system.  

Samuelson blames us, the students.  

Even as competition for admittance to top colleges and post-secondary programs across the country grows boundlessly ridiculous, the media focuses on the crème de la crème and ignores the fact that compared to our Indian and Chinese counterparts, American students are comparatively uninterested in education and generally unmotivated.  

Fixing this problem is a policy puzzle that involves acknowledging and engaging with a culture of consumption that has pervasively penetrated childhood.

It was hard for my fourth grade teacher to compete with my Tamagotchi for my attention, and yet, I was a devoted student and negligent Tamagotchi owner.

As toys have become even more interesting (and long division has remained relatively constant in its complete lack of appeal), educators are looking for outside-the-box (but inside-the-console) ways to harness student motivation.

A New York Times magazine article details the use of educational video games as part of the Quest To Learn program in New York City. Sara Corbett entertains the idea of someday turning school into “a big delicious video game.”

While I marvel at the creativity of this proposal, and myself thrived in a Montessori environment that any pedagogical traditionalist would scoff at, I am uncomfortable with the idea that the only way to re-engage students is to stoop to their level.

Current education reform has focused on teachers and funding. These critical changes will fall short of their potential, unless other shifts in attitudes among students also come to fruition.


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